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TELEVISION

Cheers to the long run

On the 'Frasier' set, the challenges of an 11th season meld with those of moving on.

September 21, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

But last it has. "Most of the actors here are accustomed to the theater, where the longest job you have is a year or maybe two," observes Juilliard-trained Grammer. "So there's a kind of reminiscent excitement about going forward again into some unknown. It's like returning to our roots."

What may never be the same, though, is the financial security the show provided its key participants. As the show's star and an executive producer, Grammer signed a deal in 2001 that reportedly pays him $1.6 million per episode, which at the time was the most of anyone on TV and is now second only to the salary of "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Ray Romano. Pierce, too, reportedly makes upward of $1 million per episode for a show that will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to Paramount in off-network syndication revenue.

Grammer, who began portraying Frasier on "Cheers" in 1984, readily admits to his delight in tying James Arness' record of 20 seasons as "Gunsmoke's" Marshal Matt Dillon. But he also acknowledges his sadness in seeing the show end. "I take mental notes and memorize certain things around me," Grammer says. "The way the lights shoot down on the cast when they're talking, the way the piano looks. It's been a big part of our lives."

SURROGATE FAMILY

The word "family" is a constant in conversation with people on "Frasier." Even before they knew the show was ending, for instance, the show's five stars took the entire crew, with spouses -- more than 200 people -- to Las Vegas as a Christmas present last year. "When I emigrated from England to the United States at 19, I never thought anything would be as wrenching as taking myself away from my brothers, sisters and parents," says actor Mahoney, who inhabits the role of father Martin. "But this will be like leaving my family all over again."

Gilpin met her husband, artist Christian Vincent, through "Frasier" executive producer Christopher Lloyd, had her rehearsal dinner at bridesmaid Leeves' beach house and was married at Grammer's house. Leeves met her Paramount executive husband, Marshall Coben, at a "Frasier" Christmas party. Now expecting her second child, Leeves quips: "Paramount has been good to me."

While writers made Daphne overweight, not pregnant, during her first pregnancy a few years ago, Leeves' second pregnancy has again given them several options for the final season's story line. Picking up where the 10th season ended, the first episode not only tackles Gilpin's Roz Doyle getting her old job back as Frasier's feisty producer at the radio station but features Daphne and Niles aggressively pursuing pregnancy.

"In the 11th season of the show, you're fighting against the fact you've already done 240 episodes," comments Bob Daily, who wrote the season's first episode. "So you're not only trying to find something 'Friends' or 'Raymond' or 'I Love Lucy' hasn't done, you're also trying to find something that you haven't done."

Guiding the last season are returning executive producers Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan, longtime "Frasier" writer-producers who had struck out on their own after the show's seventh season. Keenan, who just finished writing his 22nd script for the series, says that "the idea of being part of its final season was irresistible."

Lloyd, too, found the challenge alluring. He left after seven seasons because he was exhausted, he says, but "it was hard to pass up the opportunity to write the final chapter of a great story. The reality of television is you usually don't get to write the last chapter. The networks write it for you. We could find a nice way to send these people off into the sunset."

Lloyd hints that this season's story lines include Niles going through a midlife rebellious period with Martin and a love triangle between Frasier and Martin over Frasier's old baby-sitter. Frasier will go back into private practice for "more one on one with a lot of troubled but, we hope, colorful characters" -- including one patient with coulrophobia, which Lloyd defines as "a paralyzing fear of clowns."

While they haven't written the show's final episode, Grammer says, "I always had an idea for the last show. Chris and I have discussed it, and surprise, surprise, we have a similar vision. Of course we're not going to tell anybody."

Meanwhile, the cast, writers and others are already making plans for life after "Frasier." Keenan and Lloyd are contracted to develop a new show for Paramount, while novelist Keenan also plans to finish his third novel, put on a back burner while he's been writing "Frasier."

Mahoney compares their ensemble to "a little rep company" and the show's theater-minded cast all express interest in doing more stage work. Gilpin, for instance, is starring in "As Bees in Honey Drown" at the Pasadena Playhouse, while Leeves starred in "Cabaret" on Broadway last summer.

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